The Mountaintop

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By Philip Pearce

On an afternoon just before the Las Vegas gun massacre, said to be the biggest in modern American history, I sat in Actors’ Theatre Santa Cruz watching a play set on the afternoon just before Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in a Memphis motel.

Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop is a strange work, less a speculation on how King might actually have spent his last hours on earth than an extended kaleidoscope meditation on a man facing up to the irony of being both a flawed human being and a national saint.

It’s set in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel as an exhausted King shouts out the door into a thunderstorm, sending his roommate Ralph Abernathy in search of cigarettes. He then phones room service for a cup of coffee. It arrives in the hands of a hotel maid with an attitude named Camae.

They then spend the better part of the play’s running time (the program says 90 minutes, but it lasted just under 105 on Sunday) smoking (she supplies the Pall Malls), chatting, teasing, challenging, fighting, getting to know each other.

Avondina Wills as King and Sarah Cruse as Camae give a lot of energy and activity to an extended two-hander segment that would challenge actors more seasoned and experienced than they are. Director Erik Gandolfi moves them around vigorously, but the shifts and permutations of their flirtatious sparring continue long after we have a pretty clear picture of who they are. He is exhausted and frantic, suspicious that the room may be bugged, sensitive about his personal appearance and hygiene, affable but deceptive in a phone call home to Coretta, terrified that every thunderclap is a gunshot. His chambermaid visitor is pretty, provocative, potty-mouthed, and shows puzzling flashes of folk wisdom and seems to know a lot about “Preacher King.”

The first portion of Hall’s script presents the dark and sloppy side of Martin Luther King so relentlessly that you welcome Cruse’s quick-witted jibes and kittenish emotional fireworks. Apart from a tender moment on the phone with his daughter in Atlanta, Wills makes you wonder whether all the soaring eloquence and passion of King’s public persona are just ingredients of a hollow facade.

The closing third of The Mountaintop solves that puzzle. Just when you want to cry  “Enough, already!” the script erupts in a plot twist that shows King at his finest and drastically repositions everything you’ve thought you knew about what has been happening thus far. No spoiler I, that’s all I’ll tell you. But the final third of this weird and wonderful play is fascinating, iconoclastic and beautifully acted.

Whether it is also thematically convincing and believable is a question I can’t at this point deal with.

The production continues weekends through October 15th.

 

Cyrano

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By Philip Pearce

IT’S INTERESTING the way that PacRep’s current season takes two central heroes of early 20th century European drama, Peter Pan and Cyrano de Bergerac, and gives them each a new look. Plus the frank theatricality of a handful of actors playing a whole lot of the characters involved in the stories of their lives.

In the June/July production of Peter and the Starcatcher twelve actors played more than 30 roles in a swashbuckling prequel to the August/July musical version of Peter Pan.

Now there’s an exciting new version of Cyrano, which tells the well-loved tale but pares nearly 50 speaking roles down to 27 to be played by a cast of nine.

When you think about it, Peter and Cyrano are cut from the same mold. Both are chock full of swaggering self-confidence, both are supernaturally brilliant swordsmen, both are sworn enemies of the social status quo. “I want,” Cyrano explains at one point, “to reduce the number of bows I have to make in a day.” Peter doesn’t want to grow up and have to make that kind of decision in the first place.

Like many another theater addict of my generation, I’ve always loved Rostand’s three hour, five-act marathon of moonlit romance, spontaneous poetry and dashing swordplay. But Michael Hollinger’s slick new translation and the fresh two-act adaptation of the text he shares with Aaron Posner make for a fast-paced and thoroughly satisfying evening in the Outdoor Forest Theater.

In a recent interview, Hollinger notes that the original script’s world of 17th century Paris isn’t exactly familiar territory to 21st century audiences. “It was important to me that the play speak to us, here and now, and therefore I made myself the litmus test of what would be accessible, immediate, funny, poignant, and so on.”

So there’s little left of Rostand’s blank verse or the sections of social comment on French society of the 1600’s. What comes across vividly is the central ironic dilemma of a man with a face so unsightly he can only use his supreme genius for poetic love talk to push his lady love into the arms of a handsome but tongue-tied rival.

Pacific Rep executive director Stephen Moorer is an active, touching and consistently funny Cyrano. He mines every vein of wit in the new script and catches most of the underlying pathos without ever slipping into the lilting Gielgud/Burton attitude and voice adopted by some Cyranos I’ve seen. His dying attack against social convention and phony officialdom is no reflective elegy, it’s a ruthless sword fight to the death.

This new version makes it easier to explore character motivations and navigate some of the finer points of 17th century French civic and military life by expanding the role of Le Bret. He’s no longer just Cyrano’s trusty military buddy; he’s a wise narrator who steps out of the action and into a spotlight to explain things directly to us ticket holders. It works admirably. Unlike Rostand’s audience but just like Shakespeare’s, we’ve reached a point where we like it when somebody pauses the story and comments on what’s going on. As always, Jeffrey T Heyer is clear and believable in the role.

The remainder of the players are busy and excellent, moving nimbly through two or three roles apiece. Jennifer Le Blanc is a beautiful, passionate Roxane, so swept up in a duet of Cyrano’s poetry and Gascon-cadet Christian de Neuvillette’s good looks that it takes her fourteen years to discover she’s been in love with the soul of one and only the body of the other.

Justin Gordon is an appealing Christian, a fresh military recruit who’s closely in touch with his feelings but clueless in expressing them. I liked his last-minute wide-eyed explosion of terror at having to woo the lovely Roxane, even coached by the eloquent Cyrano.

D Scott McQuiston is a bubbly and comically endearing Ragueneau, a pastry chef and would-be poet, who manages (in the interest of trimming down cast size) to shout protests at his wife for wrapping her pastries in the texts of his verses without her ever actually appearing on stage.

A small and energetic Andrew Mazer is convincingly tipsy as a bibulous cadet named Ligniere.  Lewis Rhames is willowy and comically inept as a plumed Parisian popinjay named De Valvert, one of a string of candidates for the hand of the fair Roxane. More purposeful and pompous is Michael Storm as another suitor, De Guiche, commander of Cyrano and Christian’s Gascon battalion. The versatile and surprising Garland Thompson moves effortlessly through five different roles, most notably in drag as Roxane’s busybody and sweet-toothed duenna and then in Rosary and wimple as the chatty, broom-wielding Sister Marthe.

Kenneth Kelleher’s direction manages, again and again, to make the nine-member cast look and act like a big crowd. My favorite segment of Act 1 is a sequence that doesn’t even happen in the old Rostand version. Cyrano, high and happy at some fond attention from his beloved Roxane, learns that a hundred sword-wielding thugs are planning a midnight ambush at the Porte de Nesle. He vows to bare his sword and carve them up, single handedly, one by one. Rostand’s script simply reports his success after the fact. Kelleher, Moorer and fight director Justin Gordon show it happening in a shadowy ballet of flashing swordplay which proves that perfectly timed farce can be both hilarious and beautiful.

I loved the show, but I had minor problems with the set design. The big outdoor theater stage allows for a lot of depth and width. But is the backstage area so limited that ingredients of Patrick McEvoy’s settings need to be stored in plain view instead of waiting in the wings to be wheeled on when required? The big quarter moon awaited its appearance in the balcony/garden scene from a position way upstage. And an unchanging background of blue-green wooden fretwork units gave a sense of clutter.

That said, it’s a must see, but take plenty of coats and blankets. It continues through October 15th.